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February 21, 2011 6:30 AM   Subscribe

How can I get my cat to realize he has food in his bowl and quit bugging me?

All night long, whenever my cat his hungry, he wakes us up meowing, even though he has food in his bowl. We essentially get up and escort him to his bowl, where he then quietly and happily eats. Until he's hungry again.

This behavior started when we started restricting his food overnight (he's overweight), understandably, but after talking with our vet who said he's fine at his heavy weight as long as he doesn't get heavier, we started leaving plenty of food out overnight again. But it's as if he assumes there's no food as before, and still wakes us up.

So how do I get him to realize he DOES have food and doesn't need to wake us up? I know there's the "ignore him" strategy, but I really don't think we could survive his persistent yowling, so other strategies are invited.
posted by Ms. Toad to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Will he eat during the day without your company? Some cats do not like to eat alone.
posted by jeather at 6:32 AM on February 21, 2011

Could you put a food bowl near your bed/by the bedroom door? So when he comes to bother you there is food RIGHT THERE?
posted by cabingirl at 6:36 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Our cats used to bug us for food on the regular - but ESPECIALLY in the early mornings. Not okay. We switched to an automatic feeder - similar to this one. The trick is to separate your presence from the magical appearance of food. Also, using this system, chubs might drop some weight, which is good for everyone.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:48 AM on February 21, 2011

If putting food near the bed or bedroom works, you can then slowly migrate it back to the regular feeding spot: four or five days in the bedroom, two-three days next to the bedroom door, four or five days moving down the hallway, etc.

You could also try associating a vocal sound with "food in the dish" (a few days' training maybe) and try making that sound when he gets hungry at night.
posted by amtho at 6:50 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like the cat wants attention, food is just an excuse...
posted by SueDenim at 6:57 AM on February 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

Our cat started doing this exact thing recently. She's almost 20, so we think she may just be getting a little senile.
posted by tdismukes at 7:02 AM on February 21, 2011

I have no insights but many cats I have known seem to want company when they eat. I don't understand the behavior but it is common. But yeah, the middle of the night is no good.
posted by Jode at 7:08 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

We were having this problem, too.

Every morning, without fail, Kitty would start meowling for us. Usually around 3:30 or 4. At first we thought it might be a lack of food or water.

Nope. Food in the bowl. Water, to the brim.

"She wants attention!" we reasoned. We brought her into bed with us. She quickly ran off.

And the cycle started to repeat itself: Kitty comes into the room very early and starts singing for us. We get up, she runs off. We lay back down, she comes back singing. On and on. We think it may have been a game for her. A cruel game for us, but fun for her. We tried squirt guns, but that strangely seemed to intensify the visitations.

So we started closing her in the guest room. At first glance it may seem a little harsh, but it's actually been the difference between a full nights sleep and a couple of hours for us. Stocked up with food, water and a litter box, she's free to practice her singing routine, and we're free to sleep. We think she's actually gotten used to it, too. There's been more than a couple of mornings where, after we open the door, she is perfectly content to stay camped out on the guest bed.
posted by shiggins at 7:20 AM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

he wakes us up meowing, even though he has food in his bowl.

It's a game.

We essentially get up and escort him to his bowl

You're playing it.

Sorry. The only thing that has mitigated this somewhat is getting another cat.
posted by desjardins at 7:30 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

We essentially get up and escort him to his bowl, where he then quietly and happily eats.

Congratulations, the cat has trained YOU. Either ignore it, close your bed room door or close off a section of the house, but for god sakes, don't cater to it. That's how they win in the end.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:40 AM on February 21, 2011 [11 favorites]

Agreed. It's a kitty game. Our cat does similar things, albeit nowhere near as regularly. Guest room solution sounds good to me.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:06 AM on February 21, 2011

Thanks for the suggestions. Maybe it is a game or attention-seeking; it's just that he didn't do this before we started restricting his food. Maybe it's turned into a game now, but I was hoping to get him back to his pre-restricted-food behavior.

He does eat alone and without escorting during the day when we're home - it's only during the night that this behavior goes haywire.

I've certainly contemplated locking him away at night, but we don't have a place that we can close off other than a bathroom, and that doesn't seem right :(

I may try the option of leaving the food close to the bedroom and then slowly moving it back to the kitchen. Anything at this point is worth trying!
posted by Ms. Toad at 8:12 AM on February 21, 2011

Maybe it is a game or attention-seeking; it's just that he didn't do this before we started restricting his food. Maybe it's turned into a game now, but I was hoping to get him back to his pre-restricted-food behavior.

Cats are creatures of habit. If he got into the habit of having to yowl and sing in the middle of the night when he was hungry, the only natural thing is for him to continue to yowl and sing in the middle of the night when he's hungry. So far, you've given him absolutely no reason to change his habits -- your sleep certainly isn't a motivating force for him.

You could, of course, get a spray bottle. If you don't think failing to respond will get him to stop, maybe actively expressing your displeasure by spraying him with water will.
posted by meese at 8:21 AM on February 21, 2011

Just to be clear, when you say there's food in the bowl, how much is there? Regardless of how much food might remain, if my Scooter can see any part of the bottom of the bowl IT IS EMPTY.
posted by kimota at 8:36 AM on February 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm not familiar enough with cat psychology to know if this will be helpful, but for my dog, I finally started setting alarms on my phone with a specific ringtone. If she whines for food, I just mildly tell her that it's not mealtime yet, but when the alarm goes off, I stop whatever I'm doing and feed her right away. She seems to have mostly decided that the phone is in charge of her meals, and her whininess has decreased substantially.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:47 AM on February 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm confused as to whether or not you have a bedroom door, as you say that the only place to lock him up is the bathroom. If you have a studio, my sympathies are with you. The reason we have a terribly annoying cat now is because I had him in a studio the first 3 years of his life, and I catered to his whims in order to get any sleep at all.

If you DO have a bedroom door, and you close it to keep him out, he'll figure out how to scratch and paw and otherwise annoy you until you get up again. YOU MUST RESIST. Use sticky tape, aluminum foil, fans under the door, rattling coins, and whatever other methods you can to discourage him that do not associate you with the action. Once he figures out that he's getting YOU to do something, it becomes part of the game. If I were an engineer, I would not be above employing motion sensors and water guns. This is warfare, man.

On a completely different note, could he be going blind? My dad's cat can't find his food without help. Maybe smellier food would make a difference.
posted by desjardins at 8:55 AM on February 21, 2011

I agree with the "cats are creatures of habit" answers here. I don't think it's so much a "game" for the cat. We're prone to attributing more sly, plotting intelligence to our cats than is really warranted. But no matter how they glare at you (mine is sitting behind me right now watching me type) they are not tiny evil geniuses. Having his food restricted might have been a bit traumatic -- big sudden change in routine. Now, he thinks that he has to yowl, you have to get up, before he can eat. You've just got to get him used to a new routine, and it has to have sensory cues that he can respond to; sound is probably best.

I wonder if one of those automated feeders might help? The kind that makes noises when it drops food. It'll be a change, and one with associated cues and triggers.

He also really will be fine in the bathroom on his own at night, if you can't hear him yowling in there. As long as he has a soft place to snuggle down and sleep, he'll be just fine. Bonus if it's next to a heating vent.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:02 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great, I have a lot to work with here. I do have a bedroom door, but yes, it's the resisting of the meowing, pounding, scratching, and flicking of the door (not to mention it's a rental and this cat can do some damage!) that I'm not sure I can do. I hadn't considered an automatic feeder because of stories I've heard of cats then yowling at IT, but I still might give it a go - the sound cues are a good idea.

I'm still a bit resistant to locking up for the night because he's an indoor/outdoor cat and he goes out at night, but worse comes to worst (and it's pretty close!), into the bathroom he goes.

I adore this cat, but good god he's tough to train. He's not bothered by water, loud noises, swats, throwing of socks, and he has a will of steel.
posted by Ms. Toad at 9:13 AM on February 21, 2011

Is the dish lit where he is? One of my cats used to do this kind of thing. I discovered that she doesn't like to eat in the dark, and moving her dish to a well-lit spot even at night stopped the behavior.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:21 AM on February 21, 2011

Fwiw, I have made it clear to the kitties that I will not get put of bed to feed or play with them. If they wake me, I pretend to be asleep (I will not lose the battle of wills.)

It took a week or so, but they learned. I also don't get up in the morning and feed them immediately - so there is no association (except water, that's different). Even if they're out of food, 45 minutes isn't going to kill them (this has only happened once or twice ever.

So, mostly, stop getting up. It'll suck for a few days, but the payoff is worth it. I loves me my kitties, but being woken up for attention sucks. Kitty will push the boundaries but stop if there's no payoff.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 9:26 AM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

My cats like to have me come over and put some food in their dish for them to show how much I love them/how much they own me, whether or not there is already food in said dish. First rule in our house is begging never wins - even if I was going to the kitchen specifically to give them more food, if they beg for it they get nothing. There's still some begging, but WAY less and usually only when there is some justification for it, like they have very little food left.
You have to be consistent - if you give in now and again he knows there is always hope, so push him off the bed and roll over and try to go back to sleep.

tl;dr: don't give in to the begging. He's training you. Ignore him and eventually he will stop.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:56 AM on February 21, 2011

FWIW, my cat likes to drink out of the sink faucet. I used to indulge this behavior years ago, but then I decided to stop and make her forage for water instead (i.e. find the bowl of fresh water right by her food bowl). So for years she drank out of the water bowl. Recently, however, I started letting her drink out of the sink again because I had a visiting cat who drinks out of the sink (and I'm not sure she WILL drink out of a bowl so I indulged her while she was here). Now she's gone home, but my cat still wants the sink drink. She wakes me up in the night for sink drink. She pounces on me, meows, and runs to the bathroom and jumps on the counter. It is SO ANNOYING. However, I've gone through this before and I'll have to do it again ... I just have to start saying "no" and ignoring her. It's like a detox process. She'll be EXTRA ANNOYING for a while, and then she'll finally figure out that I'm over the sink drink. It ain't gonna happen. She's gonna have to forage for water again.

YMMV. The problem with cats is that some cats are extra finicky and WON'T eat if they don't like the food, WON'T drink if they don't like the (bowl/location/temperature), etc, so you have to be careful. You can ignore him for a few days and see if she starts eating, but he needs to start eating! If she doesn't, you may have a problem. Be careful. (I like the idea of moving the food to your bedside, too. If only moving a bowl of water to my bedside would help. I need to install a sink in my bedroom.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 9:59 AM on February 21, 2011

I remember reading Cleveland Amory's The Cat Who Came for Christmas and laughing out loud at the chapter that told about how Polar Bear (his adopted cat) started waking him up regularly around 3:30AM and meow for food, even though he had food in his dish in the kitchen. Amory eventually "solved" this problem by keeping a small dish by his bedside and a pouch of Tender Vittles. When Polar Bear meowed, he'd roll over sleepily and pour some food in the little dish, and Polar Bear was happy. I laughed because Sparky, our cat at the time, had developed a very similar habit - he'd wake my Dad up every night around 4AM or so, and Dad had done the exact same thing - kept a small pot pie tin by his nightstand and would pour some Happy Cat into it when Sparky came-a callin'. Apparently it's just a game/power play that some cats engage in.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:16 AM on February 21, 2011

I need to install a sink in my bedroom.

We have some of those water fountain things for our cats. You can try one of those.
posted by callmejay at 10:38 AM on February 21, 2011

I have the world's most food obsessed cat*. I really enjoy sleeping with a cat in bed, but my cat's favorite move was to sit on my pillow and claw my hair and hairline. It was insanely annoying, until one night I decided to just shut the door. He starts crying when he hears us wake up in the morning, but by then I should probably get up anyway. Cats really aren't malicious, but they just aren't motivated by human approval the way dogs are. Just don't give your cat what he wants (food, attention) when it's disturbing your sleep. Ive found consistency and the odd squirt from a water bottle really keep the annoying behavior at bay.

* he's raided cupboards and ripped open bags of flour, rolled oats, dried coconut and rice; crossed lit stoves for shreds of carrot on a chopping board; he eats mushrooms, onion, spinach, pine nuts and pasta; he is FULL ON.
posted by nerdfish at 11:27 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do have a bedroom door, but yes, it's the resisting of the meowing, pounding, scratching, and flicking of the door (not to mention it's a rental and this cat can do some damage!) that I'm not sure I can do.

My kitty was an obnoxious bedroom door scratcher/digger when I first was teaching him to leave me alone at night, and I was also in a rental and fearful of damage.

For the floor, try getting the cheapest floor-mat type item you can find to cover the floor in front of the door. If you have a surplus store nearby, look for old carpet samples. Or try a discount chain store for an ugly rug, welcome mat, car floor mat, office-chair rolling mat, whatever is cheapest and will cover the floor outside your bedroom door. If your chosen solution is at all flexible, tape the edges down or put it partway under your door so you won't wake up to flap-flap-flap as kitty digs at the edge of it.

Then affix strips of packing tape sticky-side-out all over the bottom half of your door where kitty could reach. You know, curl the ends back so they will stick to the door. This should help keep kitty from pawing at the door itself.

Finally, refuse to feed the cat until you have been up and out of bed for a significant amount of time, so he will stop associating food and attention with you getting up. Remember, behavioral psychology teaches us that occasional rewards are even more likely to promote the behavior than constant rewards (think slot machine behavior). If you give in just this once so he'll shut up!, it will reinforce the problem behavior very strongly. Get some earplugs, get a white noise machine, whatever you gotta do to ignore kitty's behavior until he learns that it won't work. For my cat this took several awful months, but now it has been years and he never wakes me up. Good luck!
posted by vytae at 12:33 PM on February 21, 2011

What about having some dedicated attention/snuggles time before you go to bed at night? My cat has this way of just being SUPER annoying whenever he wants something, and I thought it was food for a long time, but realized it was just that he wanted me to get up and pet him. Until I started a scheduled snuggling routine, he would spend every freaking night going "MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW" until I got up (he trained me well), and then he would just be like, "oh hi, you're up? *purrrrrpurrpurr*" even if I gave him food. Now he entertains himself with his toys instead, and I sleep.

PS. You forgot to link a kittypic. :)
posted by so_gracefully at 2:20 PM on February 21, 2011

Thanks again for all these suggestions (oh, and here's the little devil:

He does get a good, routine nighttime petting, and one other factor in his zaniness may be that our second cat, who had been around since this one was a kitten, died not long ago, so this one seems to be extra needy lately.

I will try a few of these options, but it seems that some committed ignoring is going to be involved. We tried it before, lasted a few days and then just couldn't take it anymore. It's going to take some work to break this feline. But it's reassuring to know that it will work once we get past the tough part - it's like heroin withdrawal or something.

posted by Ms. Toad at 4:01 PM on February 21, 2011

Aw he is freaking adorable.

(Not an answer, I know.)
posted by torticat at 9:04 PM on February 21, 2011

Nthing kimota - and my Bengal cat gets quite irritated if his whiskers will hit the side of the bowl while he's eating. We have to make sure the bowl is mostly full most of the time.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:22 AM on February 22, 2011

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